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  Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder
 
 
 
 
Antwerp: a Booming City


We know neither where nor precisely when Bruegel was born. There were no state birth registers, and church baptismal records were more the exception than the rule. The first written mention of "Peeter Brueghels" dates from 1551, when he was enrolled as a master in the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp. New masters were usually between 21 and 26 years of age, so Bruegel could have been born between 1525 and 1530. To put this in perspective, it would be some fifty years before Rubens (1577) and some eighty years before Rembrandt (1606) were born.
Bruegel's birthplace is assumed to have been Breda or some nearby village with a name similar to that of the painter. He would settle down twice in especially wealthy cities, first in Antwerp and later in Brussels, the residence of the Habsburg Spanish regent.
Antwerp was the city with the highest growth rate in Europe, the new financial and economic centre of the western world, the focal point for businessmen from many countries. The discovery of the sea routes via Africa to Asia, and over the Atlantic to America, had helped Antwerp to a position of prominence, with the old trade routes via the Mediterranean losing and the ports along the Atlantic coast gaining in importance. Antwerp was also favourably situated for north-south traffic, involving such goods as silk and spices from the Middle East, grain from the Baltic countries, wool from England. Artists and craftsmen also profited from the turnover of goods and rapid financial transactions. It is believed that 360 painters were at work in Antwerp in 1560, an unusually high number. Given a population of some 89,000 inhabitants (the figure for 1569), this would work out at approximately one painter per 250 citizens. For many decades, there was no better place for painters to be north of the Alps than in Antwerp.
The painters' exceptionally high numbers also made them particularly crisis-prone, however. A temporary economic slump could have been the reason for Bruegel's journey to Italy in 1552. There are no written records of this journey, but we do have sketches, drawings and paintings which bear witness to its having taken place. Virtually every contemporary painter went travelling, visiting Venice, Florence, and Rome to learn from the pictures of the Italian masters and especially to study the works of antiquity. Many of these Netherlands painters, as "Romanists", brought Renaissance ideas and ideals back with them to the north. Bruegel was not one of them, however; he returned to Antwerp from Italy in 1554, to stay there until 1562.
The boom-town atmosphere of the rapidly growing city will have been frightening for many of its inhabitants. The people of the 16th century were accustomed to life in small, manageable communities in which the population was relatively stable and everyone knew everyone else. This was not the case in the metropolis of world trade. The population of Antwerp well-nigh doubled between 1500 and 1569. Some one thousand souls of this host were foreigners, speaking different languages and practising different customs; they were watched with suspicion. The loss of church unity further contributed to the general insecurity and disquiet, with Catholics living next to Calvinists, Lutherans and Anabaptists. The result was a "multicultural" society with problems of communication, especially with respect to matters of religion.
Contemporaries saw a possible allegory for this unaccustomed situation in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, as related in Genesis 11. King Nimrod had wanted to build a tower, the top of which would reach to heaven. God, regarding the construction as an act of arrogance, of hubris, had punished the people by stripping them of their common language. Having lost the ability to communicate with one other, the builders scattered, leaving the work unfinished.
Bruegel painted the Babylonian tower no less than three times. The Tower of Babel (1563) and The "Little" Tower of Babel (c. 1563) have survived; the former may be seen in Vienna, the latter in Rotterdam. A gigantic edifice has been depicted twice. Never before had a painter successfully rendered the dimensions of the tower so vividly, nor the extent to which it surpassed everything previously known to man.
Bruegel has portrayed the construction work in both paintings not as some distant event but rather as a contemporary building project, complete with a wealth of realistic details. The pictures are brought to life, for example through his selection of a riverside location for the building site: it was along waterways that bulk goods such as stones were customarily transported. Bruegel's depiction of lifting devices is almost pedantic. A powerful crane stands on one of the ramps in the Vienna picture, with three men treading away in the front drum and a further three - albeit invisible - in the rear one; such cranes were quite capable of raising stone blocks weighing several tons. The painter will have been familiar with the pier buttresses from Gothic cathedrals, where they provided resistance to the side thrust of the walls. He has put several huts on the ramps spiralling up to the top of the tower; this, too, was in keeping with the reality of contemporary large-scale building projects, where each guild or construction team would have had its own on-site hut.
In the Vienna picture, Bruegel has spread out a city at the foot of the edifice towering up into the clouds. This is one of his rare urban landscapes. In the foreground, King Nimrod is inspecting the work of the stonemasons, one of whom is down on his knees before the monarch. In Europe, subjects went down before potentates on only one knee; going down on both, the kowtow, is Bruegel's sole indication that the king in question here is from the Middle East.
Nimrod's presence in the picture from Vienna recalls the King's arrogance and the motif of hubris. The King is absent in the darker, seemingly more threatening painting in Rotterdam; instead, a procession with a red baldachin, scarcely visible to the naked eye, has been inserted on one of the ramps. It was customary for Catholic dignitaries to proceed under such baldachins - an indication that not even the higher ranks of the clergy are immune to arrogance? These dabs of colour must have been important for Bruegel, since he has placed them on the same level as the horizon line, at the very midpoint of the picture seen from the side.

 
  The world as a construction site


King Nimrod, Chamas's grandson, Noah's son, said he wanted to revenge himself on God if God should again afflict the earth by visiting a second deluge upon it. Therefore he said he would build a tower so high that the flood-waters would not reach its top.

Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, Chapter 4, first century AD



Teeming with master builders, carpenters, stonemasons, mortar mixers and brick-masons, the enormous construction site depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Tower of Babel recalls something like an anthill. It is clear that no expense was spared here. A tower was to be built, which would reach the Heavens. However, it was not intended merely to withstand the floodwaters of a second deluge. If one believes what is written in the OldTestament and in the writings of Josephus Flavius, a Romanised Jewish historian, or even what is supposed to have been in The Sibylline Books, the tower primarily symbolised man's defiance against divine omnipotence. Evidently the act of building achieved its purpose: "The Lord waxed wroth and became enraged when for Hoffart the tower was engaged", quipped the Strasbourg Humanist Sebastian Brant in his Narren-schiff (1494), published in English as The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde in 1509. Needless to say, the Lord was not amused by these excesses. He descended from the Heavens to punish the construction workers who, until then, had spoken to each other 111 the same language.
After the visitation they were left with a confused babble of tongues. Since people could no longer communicate with each other, the tower was left unfinished. A gigantic monument to hubris, it crumbled into decay. Did such a tower actually stand in Babylon, then one of the world's oldest cities, long the political and cultural hub of the ancient Near East? Archaeologists are not in agreement on this point. Nevertheless, in 1899, the remains of a sanctuary were uncovered on the site of ancient Babylon. In the middle of the temple precinct traces were found of a square tower consecrated to the god Marduk. Its sides were 91.5 metres long and it was estimated to have been some 90 metres high. Was this the legendary Tower of Babel?

The Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder transplanted the Tower of Babel to Antwerp, where he joined the St Luke's Artisans' Guild in 1551. That Pieter Bruegel made the Tower of Babel the subject of a painting shows the painter felt he, too, was living in a time of social, political and religious unrest. He obviously thought a great deal about what the biblical tower symbolised: ambition, pride and the transience of human existence. His painting may, therefore, be a sign that some sane voices were calling for moderation and reflection in an exhilarating age of global exploration and of expanding trade links. On the other hand, The Tower of Babel might just as easily be taken to represent a manifesto against the denial of human rights, oppression and tyranny, a vision invoking the imminent end of the Spanish domination of the Netherlands. The painting might also be interpreted as moral support for the Reformation. Its leading exponents never ceased to censure the Papacy and the princes loyal to Rome for "resurrecting" the godless city of Babylon. The Reformers were of the opinion that it was high time for more linguistic diversity since, as they saw it, the Church of Rome no longer had anything worth saying.

K.Reichold, B.Graf




The Tower of Babel
1563

Bruegel has placed the building site in a coastal landscape; the Netherlander acquired a considerable proportion of their wealth from maritime activities. The tower is also situated near a river, since it was along the waterways, and not via the unpaved country roads, that bulk goods were transported in those days. The painter has given the biblical account many realistic features, among them the city panorama.


The Tower of Babel (details)
1563

King Nimrod is paying a visit to the building site, stonemasons going down on their knees before him. Performing the kowtow was not common practice in Europe; Bruegel made use of it to point to the story's oriental origins.
He remained true to his surroundings for most of the other details, however: a treadwheel crane of the type to be seen in the detail on the right is believed to have stood in the Antwerp marketplace.


The Tower of Babel (detail)
1563

Foreign merchants, new religious groupings, and the city's rapid growth led to problems of orientation and communication in Antwerp. An allegory for this situation was seen in the biblical account of the Tower of Babel: intended to reach up to heaven, it displeased God, who stripped humankind of their common language, thereby preventing the comletion of the tower's construction.



The Tower of Babel (details)
1563

 
 
 

The Tower of Babel (details)
1563



The Tower of Babel (details)
1563



The Tower of Babel (details)
1563



The Tower of Babel (details)
1563



The Tower of Babel (details)
1563



The Tower of Babel (details)
1563

 
 
Bruegel painted this subject at least three times; we still possess two of the works. The "Big" Tower hangs in Vienna, the "Little" Tower in Rotterdam.
The Christian tradition interprets the tower, which was intended to reach up to heaven, as a symbol of hubris, of arrogance. In the picture from Vienna, it is King Nimrod, and thus the worldly potentate, who is the target of criticism. Here, in the Rotterdam painting, an almost invisible church procession is ascending the ramps: Bruegel is criticizing the Catholic Church.


A picture entitled Babylonian Tower also appears in the surety list of Nicolas Jonghelinck, the Antwerp merchant and financier; however, it is unknown to which version reference was being made. In 1565, Jonghelinck possessed sixteen paintings by Bruegel, and will presumably have been typical of the painter's circle of patrons - wealthy, educated, a member of the elite. Two paintings by Bruegel were also to be found in the possession of Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, one of Spain's most influential representatives in the Netherlands for several years and later a member of the Council of State in Madrid.
We can only assume that many of Bruegel's paintings were commissioned by his patrons, albeit certainly without detailed instructions; in contrast, we may be certain that the majority of his drawings, which served as models for engravings, were executed to order. Bruegel's patron here was Hieronymus Cock, who had works engraved, printed and sold in his Antwerp art-shop, "The Four Winds". Cock will presumably have set out in some detail what he expected. He wanted to serve the market, to fulfil the wishes of his public, and if a picture was by an unknown artist, then he would also occasionally falsify the name for the sake of better marketability, claiming that the picture was the work of a popular artist. Such was Bruegel's experience as a young man: it was he who drew The Big Fish Eating the Little Fish (1557), yet the picture was engraved, printed and put on sale in the name of the Netherlands painter Hieronymus Bosch, who had died in 1516, some ten years before the birth of Bruegel.
Such a deception was quite possible, since Bruegel had produced fantastic figures identical in style to those of his late compatriot. Smaller fish are slithering out of the mouth of a big fish lying on land, themselves giving forth even smaller ones. The big fish is being slit open by a human figure with an enormous knife, on the blade of which the imperial orb is engraved: emperors and kings live at the expense of their subjects just as the more powerful merchants in Antwerp live at the expense of their weaker brethren - the big eat the little. It is a terrible world, one ruled by inhuman, diabolical greed, which the father in his boat is showing his son, and Cock his clients in the markets in Antwerp and the surrounding area.
Only once in Bruegel's paintings do we see how this world, the city of Antwerp, actually looked, and that solely in passing, as the background to Two Monkeys (1562). This puzzling picture is unusually small, measuring a mere 20 x 23 cm. The animals appear to be squatting in the vaulted window of a fortress; they are chained, and nutshells are strewn about. Bruegel could have been thinking of the Netherlands proverb "to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut", in which case the monkeys would have lost their lawsuit and their freedom for the sake of something as unimportant as the kernel of a nut. The work may also reflect the oppressive atmosphere under Spanish rule, or could be seen in connection with Bruegel's departure from Antwerp.
Given the total absence of knowledge regarding the circumstances that prompted this picture, however, the observer would be advised to place all speculation on one side - indeed, as we should usually do - and simply see what the painting is saying to him: the dejection of the creatures, and the temptingly beautiful urban panorama, unattainable for those imprisoned in massive fortress walls.


The Big Fish Eating the Little Fish
1557

A faceless man is using an oversized knife to slit open the belly of a fish, out of which are slithering other fish which in turn have smaller fish in their mouths. The caption - put into the mouth of the man in the boat with his son - surely referred not only to the fierce competition in Antwerp: '"Look, my son, I've known for a long time that the big fish devours the little one."




Two Monkeys
1562

The significance of the two monkeys, chained and squatting dejectedly, is unclear. In Christian iconography, monkeys generally represented stupidity or such vices as vanity or miserliness. The nutshells refer to a Netherlands proverb, "to go to court for the sake of a hazelnut". This would suggest that the monkeys had risked their freedom for something unimportant. In the background, we see a view of Antwerp from the sea. Bruegel left Antwerp in 1563 to settle in Brussels.

 
 
 

 
 
 
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